Made In The U.S.A., Kind Of

Each year, more and more American companies are sending their manufacturing abroad, rather than keeping it in the United States.

But not everyone’s doing it for the same reasons. Some do it to reduce their manufacturing costs, some do it to attain a certain level of quality, and some do it out of necessity.

“Nowadays, to get the price you’re looking for, it’s sometimes easier if you can produce things overseas,” says Brian Metee, production manager of Fourstar Clothing.

Today’s skateboard market is bigger than it’s ever been with broader-based appeal. As a result, it’s become increasingly difficult for companies manufacturing entirely in the U.S.A. to stay in business.

The Federal Trade Commission’s job is to prevent unfairness and deception in the marketplace, and also to determine what “Made In The U.S.A.” really means. But when it comes to a definition, they have a rather ambiguous definition. According to the Federal Trade Commission Act, a product with a “Made In The U.S.A.” tag must be “all or virtually all” made in the United States. But the term “virtually” is never defined. This ambiguity leaves some Americans suspicious about the amount of American-made content in their merchandise. At present there seems to be a growing interest in the overseas market among hardgoods dealers. Several board, truck, wheel, and bearing companies have allegedly started to do business in China and other foreign countries. George Powell, president of Skate One, distributors of Powell Skateboards, and Bones Wheels and Bearings, gets certain goods from overseas: “The only things we import are our (Swiss and Reds) bearings, from Switzerland and China, respectively.”

A negative stigma seems to haunt overseas merchandise. Chris Mullins is the vice president of product development at San Diego-based Web site Mullins explains why he feels boards coming from overseas are akin to low-quality department-store boards: “All we have to compare them to are the toys (department-store skateboards) we’ve seen over the past ten years.” But some manufacturers feel overseas merchandise isn’t necessarily of poor quality. Despite having 98 percent of their merchandise manufactured in the United States, Powell believes under the right circumstances quality merchandise can come from anywhere. “I think that good product can be made anywhere, as long as the person making it has the tools and skills to make it,” he says. “You can make really good product in China.” The remaining two percent of Skate One’s overseas merchandise-its Swiss and China Bones bearings-are testimony to this fact.

Metee feels the same logic applies to softgoods: “People have this assumption that just because it’s made overseas, the quality won’t be as good. But that’s not necessarily true.”

Elwood Clothing President Luciano Mor agrees that quality isn’t the only reason to keep manufacturing in the U.S. Elwood keeps its denim manufacturing Stateside simply because the company needs to be involved with its complicated production. “It’s less about quality, and more about control,” Mor says. “We have people that spend all day at the wash houses or over at the contractors, just keeping an eye on it (production).” Mor admits it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep denim production in the U.S.: “It seems like we are one of the last ones standing with U.S. denim, but we’re sticking to it.”

Volcom’s Director Of Production Brian Fearnley goes so far as to say that not only is quality not compromised: “I would argue that quality is better coming from overseas.”

Both Mor and Powell also happen to agree that inevitably, most of the skateboarding market will be manufactured overseas. When that day comes, companies may have to choose between compromise and staying in business. Powell notes, “Eventually when everyone does it, prices will fall. Some people’s product will sell better than others, and this will eventually drive prices down in proportion to thhe way they are now.”

Mor maintains that he will outsource what’s necessary, but only as a service to his overseas customers: “We’ll eventually have to make a few styles overseas, a few pricepoint styles, just so we can drop-ship them to the places that need the lower prices.”

Fearnley explains that sometimes, in order to get the product you need, you’re forced to look overseas. “Domestic production has really fallen off because they can’t compete with people overseas,” he says. “Minimum wage has gone up, and many local contractors have gone out of business.” He understands that the nature of business is to compete, which inevitably leads to an issue of cost, stating, “You need to stay competitive, and that comes down to price.” In regard to the amount of control a buyer has in the overseas market, Fearnley counters, “I don’t think you’re sacrificing control if you are planning correctly.” The exception, he admits, is in the case of goods that are manufactured in politically volatile areas: “You need to be able to monitor your factories and visit them.”

Some manufacturers are allegedly suspected of taking their once American-made goods overseas, but keeping their customers completely in the dark. George Powell says, “When you talk about where something is made, there are two issues. One of them is quality, and the other is truthfulness. A lot of companies don’t tell their customers where their products are made.” This can make choosing a product extremely difficult for the consumer who specifically wants to support American-made products. Powell understands the consumer’s dilemma: “If he (the consumer) wants to support companies that employ people in America and utilize quality materials, that’s a good thing to do-but it’s hard because people don’t tell you where their product is made all the time.”

In coming years, survival in the skateboard market may very well rely on overseas goods. This could cause skaters to be wary of the products, because so many have relied upon U.S. skateboards for so long.

If quality and control are compromised for price, companies risk losing the loyalty of finicky skateboarders everywhere. “I like the quality of the boards that I’m accustomed to,” says Ken Lewis, of San Diego’s Hanger Eighteen Skate Shop, “and I wouldn’t want to buy a board from overseas just because it’s cheaper.”